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Gabriel Van Helsing is a man cursed with a past he cannot recall and driven by a mission he cannot deny. Charged by a secret organization to seek out and defeat evil the world over, his efforts to rid the world of its nightmareish creatures have been rewarded with the title that now follows him: murderer. Van Helsing roams the globe an outcast, a fugitive, a loner, himself hunted by those who don't understand the true nature of his calling. When dispatched to the shadowy world of Transylvania, Van Helsing finds a land stll mired inpast-- where legendary creatures of darkness come to life--a place ruled over by the evil, seductive and unfeatable vampire, Count Dracula. And it is Dracula that Van Helsing has been sent to terminate. Anna Valerious is one of the last of a powerful royal family, now nearly annihilated by Dracula. A fearless hunter in her own right, Anna is bent on avenging her ancestors and ending an ancient curse by killing the vampire. Joined by a common foe, Van Helsing and Anna set out to destroy Dracula along with his empire of fear. But in challenging an enemy who never dies, Van Helsing uncovers a secret he never imagined and comes face-to-face with the unresolved mysteries of his own enshrouded past.
For more about Van Helsing and the Van Helsing Blu-ray release, see Van Helsing Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on September 10, 2009 where this Blu-ray release scored 2.5 out of 5.
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham, Shuler Hensley, Will Kemp
Director: Stephen Sommers
» See full cast & crew
Van Helsing Blu-ray Review
"Some say you're a murderer, Van Helsing. Others say you're a holy man. Which is it?"
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, September 10, 2009
Some say you're a hack, Stephen Sommers. Others say you direct thrilling popcorn adventure movies. Which is it? The answer, dear readers, is to be found in the bloated, beached whale of a film that is Van Helsing. To start, I think it's important to remember that, as audiences, we shouldn't always get what we want. Horrors fans clamored for years to see a no-holds-barred match-up between razor-gloved Freddy Kruger and Jason, the machete-wielding camp counselor- killer. And when the inevitable Freddy vs. Jason film came out, we all heaved our shoulders with an audible and disinterested sigh. Sometimes, the longing is so much more satisfying than the having. I imagine, then, that Stephen Sommer's well-intentioned brain initially buzzed with the possibilities. A grand, gothic adventure on a heretofore unseen scale, featuring three of Universal Classic's most iconic monsters, all fought by Bram Stoker's Van Helsing character? Like Freddy vs. Jason, it sounds good on paper. But then the tinkering started. What if we make Van Helsing young and sexy, and give him a Clint Eastwood-style duster, a black-brimmed hat, and a flowing lion's mane of hair? What if we CGI all the creatures so they can climb up the walls and defy gravity? What if we introduce ridiculously over-the-top weaponry? What if we lose sight of what made monster movies fun in the first place?
Character hopping is nothing new in the monster movie genre, where icons of the grotesque have been facing off or teaming up ever since the first generation of horror films spawned sequels and spin-offs. Van Helsing tries to up the ante by creating a unified monster universe (monsterverse?) where the stories of Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the Frankenstein Monster are actively intertwined. The film opens with Doctor Victor Frankenstein (Samuel West) bringing his cut 'n stitch, collage-like cadaver to life through the mysterious power of electricity. As soon as the monster is resurrected, Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) shows up to kill the good doctor and reveal his nefarious plan to use the monster—can I just call him Frankenstein?—to use Frankenstein (Shuler Hensley), ahem, to bring his undead, slimy-sac-encased children to life.
Fast forward one year and we meet tireless monster hunter Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) putting up his dukes against Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde atop the cathedral of Notre Dame. After dispatching the Victorian version of The Hulk, Van Helsing is summoned to the super-duper, ultra-secret underground wing of the Vatican, where he's given his new marching orders: to travel to Transylvania and prevent the remaining members of the Valerious family from going to purgatory because of an ancient curse made nine generations ago by an ancestor who vowed to kill Dracula but was unsuccessful and…mmm, hmmphhh, zzzzz. Sorry, I put myself out just thinking about it. The particulars of the plot leave little impression, and the short version of the long story is—no surprise here—Van Helsing needs to kill Dracula. Of course, he's got some help from Friar Carl (David Wenham), a papal incarnation of 007's gadget guru Q, and the sultry Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale), a local aristocrat whose brother Velkan (Will Kemp) has just become a werewolf under Dracula's command.
And under Stephen Sommer's command, the film swells and festers like a boil about to burst. Normal storytelling devices like, I dunno, character development and plot advancement are shoved into brief pockets of expository dialogue so that as much wanton action and CGI revelry as possible can be shoehorned into two hours. Who needs empathy for the protagonists when you have Kate Beckinsale bedecked in leather—I'm not making this up—straddling Hugh Jackman's face? Why bother with coherency when you have enormous, digitally created monstrosities darting across the screen at breakneck speed? And ultimately, what's the use of creating an homage to monster movies if you're just going to bypass the characteristics that have made them classics? There's no atmosphere to Van Helsing at all; it's just one shimmering, plastic action scene after another, with no breathing room to establish any mood. There are some decent performances—Shuler Hensley gives a wounded, operatic take on Frankenstein's monster, and Richard Roxburgh lends his Dracula a preening, scene-stealing sense of self-splendor—but the dialogue is too clunky and uninspired for the actors to have much to work with. Hugh Jackman is perhaps the biggest disappointment, but through no real fault of his own. He just seems like a stuffed shirt under Van Helsing's badass, knee-length duster, going through the action hero motions with appropriate energy, but no heart. Once again, as in the X-Men films, he plays a man without a past, without memories, but the conceit is so underused here that it's barely worth mentioning.
Ultimately, Van Helsing suffers from an acute strain of summer blockbuster syndrome. Divide an inflated budget of 160 million big ones by a 130-minute run time, and you'll see that each 60-second span of Stephen Sommer's monster mash costs roughly $1,200,000. To put that in perspective, Universal could have given 80 independent filmmakers $2,000,000 apiece to make their dream projects, and the world of cinema would have been blessed with several dozen passionately told stories. Instead, we have the singular Van Helsing, a film that feels the need to justify its exorbitant price tag by cramming every second with CGI-driven spectacle. Now, I'm not knocking the blockbuster in general, as there's definitely a place for big, dumb, escapist fun. But if you're going to do it, do it right. In his bigger-is-better, louder-is-larger approach to the ultimate monster movie, Stephen Sommers sacrifices plot, character, and pathos at the alter of shock and awe, making Van Helsing a 130 minute display of sound and fury signifying, well, nothing.
Van Helsing Blu-ray, Video Quality
If there's any good to the bloated excess of Van Helsing, it's that the film delivers a non- stop sugar rush of eye candy that's expertly reproduced on Blu-ray with an excellent 1080p/AVC encoded transfer. The film opens in Dr. Frankenstein's castle with a stark and stunning monochromatic presentation. Black levels are deep and inky—a trait that holds up throughout most of the film—and whites are ever so slightly overblown, giving the image a bold gradation. While I found myself wishing the black and white portions were longer—I would have almost preferred to see the whole film this way—the rest of Van Helsing is soaked in stable and saturated colors. Witness the icy blues of the Transylvanian village, the warm, yellow tones that pervade Dracula's masquerade ball, and the velvety crimson of Kate Beckinsale's cloak. An ultra- thin layer of grain covers the image and convinces that yes, Van Helsing was shot on film and no, digital noise reduction hasn't been injudiciously applied. The look is clean and sharp, with detail apparent in fine textures and an impressive sense of depth and overall clarity. Yes, you'll find some occasionally crushed shadow delineation, but most of these instances seem intentional. This is a true-to-source transfer, and as such, much of the CGI now looks dated and over-abused, with obvious, digitally altered vistas and creature work that doesn't hold up so well. Still, it is what it is, and this transfer will please those few remaining fans of film as well as eye candy junkies looking for their next visual fix.
Van Helsing Blu-ray, Audio Quality
While Van Helsing's HD-DVD release contained a mere Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 mix, the film gets a more proper treatment on Blu-ray with a powerful DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. Too powerful at times, actually. The track is very enveloping, with near constant engagement from the rear channels. Listen to the buzzing electrical surges of Dr. Frankenstein's life-giving apparatus crackle all around you. Hear demon wings swoosh by in keenly implemented pans, thunder ripple outward in rolling waves, and a crowd of surrounding villagers seething with monster-hating animosity. The soundfield is nearly always alive with directional sound, atmosphere-establishing ambience, and Alan Silvestri's massive orchestral score. It's very easy, then, for voices to get lost in the mix—considering the tepid dialogue, some may consider this a plus—and I was constantly juggling my remote, trying to balance out the volumes of the quieter, conversational scenes and the loud, chaotic action sequences. The LFE channel gets an adequate workout here, but you'll often find the booming bass to be overwhelming, burying shouted dialogue and upper-register noises in a quaking avalanche of low-end. The film does sound great, and if it weren't for the frequent necessity of volume boosting/decreasing I'd be tempted to give Van Helsing's audio a 9/10.
Van Helsing Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Commentary by Director Stephen Sommers and Editor/Producer Bob Ducsay
Sommers takes great joy in pointing out what's real and what's CGI (as if we can't tell) during this chatty track filled with nonstop back-patting. Producer and editor Bob Ducsay provides some grounded respite from Sommers' flighty, hyperactive comments, but the track is unjustifiably congratulatory throughout. At one point Sommers says, "Sometimes I just can't help myself," and given the film's overindulgence, I'd say that about sums it up.
Commentary with Richard Roxburgh, Shuler Hensley and Will Kemp
This track, provided by the film's three monsters—Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, and the Wolf Man, respectively—is a much better bet. The three actors sustain a loose, laugh-filled tone throughout, and there's none of the gleeful, "look what I did" self-importance of the previous commentary.
Van Helsing: The Story, The Life, The Legend (SD, 58:09)
Like an EPK promo piece, making-of documentary and monster movie overview all rolled into one, The Story, The Life, The Legend covers all the bases over the course of five segments: Frankenstein's Monster, Dracula, The Werewolves, The Women of Van Helsing, and The Legend of Van Helsing. Here you'll find lots of on-set footage, behind-the-scenes looks at the creation of the film's special effects, and interviews with both cast and crew members and literary "authorities" on Victorian-era monsters. Once again, Stephen Sommers is a bit too overenthusiastic for his own good.
With U-Control turned on, a picture-in-picture icon will appear periodically throughout the film, and with a click of your remote you can access additional behind-the-scenes footage, interviews, and short, making-of featurettes. I didn't find much of real interest here, but then again, I'm not much of a sucker for picture-in-picture special features. There's actually very little for "U" to control—you're limited to button presses determining whether or not you want to watch a featurette.
Track the Adventure (SD, 34:36)
This is an exploration of some of the film's sets, from the icy summit of Dracula's Castle and the Tesla wet dream that is Frankenstein's Lab, to the Burning Windmill, The Village, and The Vatican Armory.
Bringing the Monsters to Life (SD, 10:02)
Visual Effects Supervisor Ben Snow and other members of the special effects team explain some of the technologies used to flesh out the world of Van Helsing. We see many different stages of the CGI animation process, from the background plates, to the wire-frame models and the finished, fully textured shots.
You Are in the Movie! (SD, 4:29)
This seems totally unnecessary. Basically, small cameras were placed around the sets and on the larger film cameras, so we can see from the perspective of the crew members. The title's more than misleading, as it should probably be called You Are on Set!
The Music of Van Helsing (SD, 9:41)
Composer Alan Silvestri talks about the difficulties of scoring a film before seeing finished footage, and discusses some of the different cues he created for Van Helsing.
Bloopers (SD, 5:39)
There's some funny stuff here, but it goes on quite long for a blooper reel.
Dracula's Lair is Transformed (SD, 2:41)
Here we see some time-lapse photography of the construction and teardown of some of the film's sets.
The Masquerade Ball Scene "Unmasked" (SD, 25:29)
Stephen Sommers talks about trying to achieve a Circue du Soleil vibe for Dracula's masquerade ball. The production eventually recruited around 100 dancers and 17 local circus artists to participate, and here we see lots of behind-the-scenes footage of casting calls and rehearsals. The end of the piece focuses on some of the sequence's special effects.
The Art of Van Helsing (SD, 5:10)
This is an auto-playing gallery set to music from the film.
Monster Eggs (SD, 1:53)
I'm not really sure what the point of this is. It seems to be footage that should have been included in the blooper reel. I guess the play is off of "Easter Eggs," but these candid, on-set moments are easily accessible via the extras menu.
Van Helsing Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
If you've seen Stephen Sommer's latest debacle, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, you'll recognize in Van Helsing a similar theme of childhood fantasy writ large. His movies are sandboxes and his characters are playthings for him to toss about and manipulate. So, yes, juvenile is a good word for Van Helsing. For some, the non-stop spectacle will be enough to satisfy, but most people will be left wanting a more substantial summer action snack. That said, the film does boast a handsome audio/visual package on Blu-ray, and this may sway A/V addicts towards a purchase. For all others, though, I'd stick with a rental.
Van Helsing: Other Editions
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Van Helsing Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Universal Announces Van Helsing Blu-ray - July 13, 2009
Universal Studios Home Entertainment has announced that they will bring 'Van Helsing' to Blu-ray on September 15th. Originally released in high definition on the now defunct HD DVD format, this film will come to Blu-ray on a BD-50 featuring 1080p VC-1 video accompanied ...
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